Thinking in threes: family, society, person

Carl Schmitt was fond of speaking in threes.  As we saw in our last post, his artistic vision was expressed in terms of three “planes:” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  He often spoke in terms of “threes”—family, society, person; origins, means, ends; art, science, wisdom—the most fundamental “three” being, of course, the Blessed Trinity.

For Schmitt, wisdom was a matter of keeping all three in balance.  As he wrote in 1963: “Wisdom is proportion. Man’s origin (his myths), man’s end (his goal), man’s means (his science) must be in proportion.”

Schmitt saw the modern world as plagued by a lack of balance and proportion: man’s pursuit of means (money)—what Schmitt calls the “expedient”—has crowded out any consideration of his origins (the esthetic realm of myth and art) and his end or goal (as embodied in religion).  Wisdom comes with the integration of all three realms. “Of the three activities of man—religious, esthetic, expedient—wisdom maintains the balance.”

Schmitt’s way of speaking in “threes” was not a simply fancy, but reflected his conviction that “every creature is a symbol of the Absolute and is Triune.”  One of his fundamental “threes” was “family – society – person”—the first concerned with the origins, the second with means, the third with ends or destiny.


Woman of Kotor, oil on aluminum, c. 1930

One can see this triad at work both in the life of the individual and in the broad sweep in history.

On the individual level, one is born into a family (his origin), makes his way in society as he grows up (makes use of the means offered by the world to support himself), but eventually must come to terms with his own personhood (his final end).  For Carl Schmitt, the truly mature individual is one who, in the final analysis, is not determined by his family, his race, his nationality, or any other social group, but takes personal responsibility for himself and his destiny.  As Schmitt himself puts it: “Most men must belong to, identify themselves with, either the collectivity of the family (or an ethnic group) or with the mass of individualist, economic-limited people. . . Very few identify with themselves.”

Why is this?  Schmitt gives a characteristically ironic and unsettling answer: “For that way leads to complete subjection to God or the devil—a condition of slavery which is odious to upstanding, forward-looking, literary-loving, wise and compassionate men.”  He himself prayed that he would not be one to hedge his bets.

In the larger historical development of Western civilization, the first two terms of the triad have epitomized each of the two millennia since the time of Christ.  In the first thousand years the dominant society in the West, that of Rome, was fundamentally familial, centered on the authority of the father (paterfamilias) and the emperor as “father of the fatherland” (pater patriae).  A transition from a familial to a more socially ordered world can be seen in the development of feudalism in the 11th century and rise of towns and commerce later in the Middle Ages.

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Christening Party at Chartres, oil on canvas, 1928

The culmination of the social world is evident today in the pervasive power of the nation state and mass communication.  Indeed, as we embark upon a new millennium, one can argue, as Carl Schmitt did, that we are at a crisis point for the family and the person vis-à-vis society and the state.  “One can only say that too great a preoccupation with either the person or the family or the collective society is dangerous and fanatical,” he wrote in 1961, “and for what it is worth I believe we suffer most today from an almost fanatical preoccupation with the collective society.”

Schmitt, however, was fundamentally positive about the future, seeing our present era as a time of transition to a “personal age” for which he had great hopes: “The future does not lie with society, but with the family and the person.  And the personal will leads because persons alone and not societies can experience humility.  Find me humble men and I will show you our rulers of the next centuries.  Men and families rather than nations will rule the future.”


Christopher, oil on canvas, c. 1950

4 thoughts on “Thinking in threes: family, society, person

  1. Pingback: Carl Schmitt: peasant | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

  2. Pingback: Featured Painting: St. Francis and the Unicorn | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

  3. Pingback: Thinking in threes: “Third-plane thinking” | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

  4. Pingback: “Art is concerned with beauty first” | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

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